As Valentine’s Day approaches I’d like to send one to my favourite film festival that reliably showcases the best in world cinema, narrative and documentary, amid the usually snowy slopes of Utah. This year saw less snow with unseasonable record warmth but the cinematic atmosphere was as electric and festive as ever with a range of hotly anticipated world premieres. The main venues are centred in the resort town of Park City where many trees are festooned with brightly coloured lights giving the whole area a magical appearance at night.
Of course the main magic happens on the big screens of darkened theatres. It would be hard to repeat the 2014 edition which saw two of its premieres make the Oscar best picture list — Whiplash (grand jury and audience award winner), and Boyhood, shown out of competition and now the frontrunner to take home the golden statuette in 10 days, which would be a first for the festival. Yet, if anything, the standard to get a film into Sundance keeps rising. Only 123 feature-length and 60 short films were accepted out of more than 12,000 submissions from numerous countries. Just to be selected is a real honour.
Festival founder and visionary Robert Redford was also a major presence during the Jan. 20 - Feb. 1 festival, in person and on screen, starring with Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods to which I will return.
At the opening press conference the 78-year-old Redford admitted to feeling somewhat “weird” about having a film in the lineup if not in competition. He may have achieved legendary status as an actor and a director but he takes nothing for granted in terms of distribution for any film. In looking back fondly on the festival’s growing pains as it struggled to create a space for independent-minded filmmakers and filmgoers to congregate and incubate storytelling ideas, he keeps pushing for the festival to expand the boundaries of narrative diversity as well as provide a platform for documentaries. Increasingly the latter are showing the potential for theatrical distribution. The reason may be that, as festival director John Cooper noted, the non-fiction genre is evolving toward much more emphasis on “story and character.” (I took in several excellent panels on the future of documentary filmmaking about which I’ll have more to say in subsequent columns.)
The commitment to diversity led to a discussion of the controversy over the Oscar nominations for being too male and white (more on that next week). Impatient for change, Sundance is certainly sensitive to issues of gender and race, as reflected in the significant number of films in competition from female and/or black filmmakers. Some are first-timers getting a critical opportunity for global exposure.
Redford noted that earlier in his career he had been fortunate to make some smaller films in the complicated “grey zone,” not the “red, white and blue zone.” But in the 1980s Hollywood, threatened by TV and video, followed the money to focusing on the youth market and whatever promised mass commercial appeal. Sundance emerged “to keep alive the idea of diversity and more independent filmmaking.” That requires constant persistence because “nobody votes for new ideas.”
Redford reiterated these points a week later when interviewed by critic Leonard Maltin on a fascinating Power of Story: Visions of Independence panel with George Lucas, the industry innovator and icon who created the Star Wars franchise. Although both Redford and Lucas grew up in California, they developed a lifelong determination to produce work outside the limiting conventions of the Hollywood studio system. Embracing the challenge, Redford observed: “One of the things I love about independent film is that it forces you to be very creative and resourceful.” On the role of Sundance in nurturing emerging filmmakers he remarked that “there’s nothing more exciting than the lab (Sundance Institute laboratories) process.”
Coming a short time after the jihadist massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris there was also a strong affirmation that the artistic community has to stand up for freedom of expression and independent voices across multiple media platforms. Staying committed to its core mission, Sundance strives to create a safe space for that to flourish in the world of film.
I’ll comment on the best of the festival’s dramatic and documentary offerings in the coming weeks. But for now I’ll highlight two movies, one of which is in Oscar contention.
A Walk in the Woods, directed by Ken Kwapis, is a genial adaptation of the eponymous 1998 memoir by noted travel writer Bill Bryson. Redford, who also produced, takes on the lead role of Bryson, who after several decades living in England returns to America and feels the itch to undertake another challenge — to wit, hiking the 2,100 mile Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine. Despite the protestations of his English wife (Emma Thompson), he’s determined to go ahead but needs a companion. Everyone he contacts turns him down flat until a voice from the past answers the call. Out of Iowa arrives Stanley Katz (Nick Nolte), a dishevelled out-of-shape alcoholic with whom he’s had a long-ago falling out.
Still Bryson reluctantly agrees and the odd couple get outfitted and set off from the Georgian trailhead. With gentle humour and wry observations about life’s successes and failures, the movie derives its charms from the characters and complications they encounter along the way. Even if they don’t go the distance, there is a sense of real accomplishment. The fact that Redford and Nolte are in their 70s (Bryson was in his 40s) adds to the poignancy of the attempt. When Katz remarks, “You really pulled it off,” he could be referring to the delight in seeing two aging stars take us on an unlikely journey.
Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, was the most riotously entertaining film I saw. Holder of Argentina’s box-office record, and a hit on the festival circuit since a well-received debut at Cannes last May, the movie presents a series of six vignettes the common theme of which is escalating revenge. As suggested by the original Spanish title of “savage tales” these mini-dramas drive deep into black comedy territory. The opening pre-credit sequence of passengers on a doomed airplane is destined to become a classic. What follows offers non-stop amusements from extreme road rage to outrage at bureaucratic indignities, a corrupt coverup of a hit-and-run fatality and a boisterous Jewish wedding from hell.
I happened to be seated near Szifrón who seemed to be enjoying the screening as much as the audience. And why not? As he explained during the question and answer session, in exaggerating the melodrama of incidents drawn from real-life situations, “the film is about the pleasure of losing control.”
*Next week: notes on the annual Oscar parade.